Strange Futures—Austin Robey & Danny Spitzberg
This interview is part of Strange Futures, a column hosted by Willa Köerner of The Strange Foundation, which features artists and organizers who are actively creating transformation in this moment. Here, Willa talks to two proponents of cooperative business models—Ampled co-founder Austin Robey, and coop-focused user researcher Danny Spitzberg—to learn more about the possibilities of bringing shared ownership to the web, how humans are naturally more generous than selfish, and what it takes to start a coop from scratch.
How are you each involved with cooperatives? Can you give us an overview of what got you interested in coop structures?
The earliest a-ha moment I had around coops was when I was helping start a café in Wisconsin while I was in school there. It was a student-run effort, with a rotating cast of characters involved every semester. We'd been sourcing food from the food coop in town, and from farms that were also somewhat cooperatively run. After a few months trying to figure out how to run this café, we realized that the way we had ended up managing ourselves—while keeping people's egos in check, and supporting the committees that were organically springing up—was quite similar to our cooperative allies. No one really knew what a cooperative was, exactly, but that was my gateway into learning more.
Now, I’m focused on doing user research with cooperatives, especially those who are building platforms. I also do a lot of research on the small subcultures that coops create, advise with Start.coop, which is the accelerator that Austin just graduated from, and lead research with Turning Basin Labs, a cooperative staffing agency.
Unlike Danny, I don't have a background as a coop stan, and I was never really in a coop before starting one. [Laughs] What really spurred my interest in cooperative business models was a book that Danny actually has an essay in, called Ours to Hack and to Own, edited by Nathan Schneider and Trebor Scholz. Reading that, it was one of those books that totally shook my world to the point where I was like, “Oh, this is an incredible idea—to apply cooperative models and the concept of shared ownership to the web.”
I think I read that book in one sitting, and then went down this deep rabbit hole of research. That’s when I knew I wanted to learn more about coops. I assumed that there would be a ton written about how to start a coop, but surprisingly, at the Brooklyn Public Library, I could only find two books on the subject. I was struck by how full of potential the model felt—especially when applied to the web—but also was struck by how underutilized it seemed, and how hard it felt to learn more.
I was interested in applying cooperative models to the web because of what I’m working on now, which is called Ampled. It’s a Patreon-style platform for musicians, except that it’s cooperatively owned and run by its artists and workers. We’re still in the early stages, but we already have several hundred artists who have signed up, and 15 worker-owners.
When you say there's a lot of potential for cooperative models to be applied to the web, what do you mean exactly? What’s the potential there?
In the context of user-generated content platforms, the coop model is just such a natural fit. One of the principle questions that made a cooperative model feel relevant is this idea of, “Who's generating value, and who's capturing it?” Under capitalism, it’s people with ownership who end up capturing most of the value. So at a base level, sharing ownership with a company’s users and creators can align incentives. And that can dramatically affect the decisions that a platform makes, and steer it in a way that is to the benefit of the people who actually use it and rely on it.
What's Spotify valued at, a billion or more? And they’re completely dependent on musicians to make their platform’s content. Lately though, there has been more awareness that this model is not serving its creators. So where coops pop up naturally is when people are like, "I'm not being served."
Journalist Nathan Schneider said something that I echo a lot which is, “Coops are created when people come together and say, ‘If no one's going to build it for us, we'll build it for ourselves.’” That’s a really powerful approach, especially in the context of web platforms.
Another aspect of coops that has appealed to me is they are decidedly non-technological in their solutions. Instead, it’s more of a human-centered, homeopathic solution. It’s like, maybe the solution to tech isn't more tech; it's actually found in how people can organize themselves. Coops are a uniquely un-technological solution to solve a lot of tech-created problems.
How do you actually develop a coop? The idea of shared ownership obviously sounds very “la-la-la, we're all holding hands and sharing ownership.” But in reality, people have a lot of different motivations and perspectives and opinions. How do you make everyone get along and work together?
Greg Brodsky from Start.coop frames this in a way that I think makes sense, where it’s all about “soft rules” and “hard rules.” Soft rules are the culture that governs the cooperative, whereas hard rules would be the bylaws that you write, and the other procedural rules that keep the coop functioning.
To use the development of Ampled as an example, in the beginning, we all penciled in our ideas on how the organization should run and govern itself. And then as we bring in more people, we incorporate more perspectives. At this point we have a decision-making matrix that helps decide who makes what kinds of decisions, and how decisions should get made. Now, our elected board is basically auditing that process and making sure that our decision-making protocols make sense, and have clear lines of accountability.
I'll add just one detail, which are the Seven Cooperative Principles. To different people, these principles are either really, really holy, or just kind of forgettable. But, there are seven principles that have been documented and loosely agreed upon in the coop community. The first three are very structure-oriented. They're about who's a member, how they become members, how decisions are made, and the way people can gain from the economics of the coop. But then the next four principles are more cultural and social and hard to enforce; they’re also what tends to position coops in an optimistic light, or as a "good thing" in the world.
So that's why these principles are kind of funny. Some people care about them, some people don't. Some people are like, “Don't throw your principles at me,” because at the end of the day, they just want to structure a business that's effective.
What does an “effective business” look like in coop terms?
For-profit companies have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize shareholder value. Traditionally, that's what makes an effective company, and “success” is almost solely dependent on that metric. But coops are motivated by service to their members. So that's how you measure performance: how well the organization is serving the people who are a part of it.
Do you think that coops fit into capitalism, or do they operate more outside of it?
Historically, it's funny to see how different generations of coops have come and gone as the capitalist market economy has ebbed and flowed. In the '30s, tons of coops got started because of the Great Depression. Like we were saying earlier, when people aren’t having their needs met, they start their own thing. But then as the World War II boom made a lot of money flow into the economy, those Great Depression-era coops slipped away. The same thing happened in the '50s and then in the '70s, too, when there was a huge influx of folks going back to the land, and starting food coops and other such things. Today, a lot of the bigger names in the coop space have been holdovers from the '70s. It’s a lot of folks with white hair and ponytails, you know, who started something in the '70s and are still here. But, a lot of coops from the '70s didn’t last, because the '80s and '90s were a crazy boom for capitalist ascendency.
So at the business level, en masse, you can certainly see how coops and capitalism have this weird dance.
How hard is it to actually start a coop? Like, let's say that as of today, I decide I want to start a coop. Assuming I stay committed to it and put in the work, when will I actually have a running coop?
I mean, the real question is, “How long does it take to organize people?” More than anything else, coops move at the speed of people. And that includes a collective learning curve, because we all have to unlearn a lot of things together. It's definitely a longer process than logging into Legal Zoom and spitting out an LLC.
In the experience of Ampled, our coop model has grown at a very organic pace and evolved over time. I don't think that coops can move too fast, especially as they’re getting started. But I think that's a good thing because it cautions you against one person, or too few people, inserting implicit biases of what they think the organization should be.
When you were saying you have to unlearn a lot of things as you start a coop, what does that look like?
A couple specific questions we’ve had to change our thinking around have been, “What is ownership?” And, “How are tech companies supposed to raise money?”
You could read a million articles written by VC investors telling you how to start a company. It's like, “Start off with ten million shares, then set aside a certain number for raising seed funding, do a series A, do a series B, etc. Eventually sell the company or go public.” That's a pretty standard life cycle for startups, and a surprising number of people have internalized it as not only the right way to do it, but the only way to do it. But that’s not how we’re doing things, so we’ve had to totally rethink how we can get the business off the ground.
As another example, learning the benefits of ownership has also been important. So many of us have historically been excluded from ownership, so we haven't learned the financial literacy of why concentrated ownership is one of the main drivers of wealth inequality. So, it's both collectively learning and unlearning at the same time. I see it as learning the rules in order to break them. We need to be familiar with the economic operating systems that we're working within, in order to come up with different ways to do it.
If we could erase our collective memories, and just start fresh in a new society that didn’t have capitalism or coops defined, do you think people would be naturally more capitalistic, or naturally more cooperative? [Laughs]
I don’t think it’s natural for people to be really selfish, or really individualistic.
There was a lovely research paper I read recently that said people tend to assume humanity is all selfish and greedy and anxious to protect their own property. But what the researchers argued was that people are socialized into that mindset. If you look at children, before they’ve been conditioned into a mindset of scarcity, we see that it’s innate to be concerned with collective well-being.
Coops tend to be heralded as this radical new model. But in reality, it’s an old model, and maybe one that’s more aligned with how we would naturally make things happen outside of the conditions of capitalism. So how come they’re so rare these days? Is it that they can’t compete with the Darwinian social order imposed by kill-or-be-killed capitalism?
To historicize things a bit, a lot of folks pinpoint the birth of cooperatives to these so-called Rochdale pioneers in Manchester, England, 150 years ago or so. But before that, there were lending circles, and other kinds of well-structured, well-governed community-sharing units in other civilizations across the world, and across time.
Extrapolating forward, if the future is able to get out of this current malaise of modernity—which has in many ways been brought about by all the things that have come with capitalism—then we'll be able to get back to cooperative principles. But yeah, it depends what kind of future we’re building, right?
I think coops can compete within capitalism. In the tech context, co-ownership is a way to grow and get buy-in and be structurally aligned with what people want. The reason they’re rare in the tech sector is simple: it’s because there are so few examples of coops in the tech space. That has created a significant barrier of information that stops people from even knowing that it's an option.
In the next decade, I feel like there will be a coop player in every major business category. But it's going to take more information on how to start them, and also a gradual cultural shift which can be brought on partially by interviews like this. Little by little, we need to expand ownership as a cultural value so that it becomes something that we care about.
So we need to shift the idea of ownership from “something that I materially possess for the benefit of myself,” to “something that I possess as an investment in myself and my community?”
Yeah—or just showcase what’s wrong with the non-ownership model where we’re all being charged rent left and right. You know, with every platform that we use, with our homes, with our data—we often don’t own any of these things. But ownership is important because when you own the things you need, it shifts the power dynamic.
One thing that still feels like a big barrier to entry is how long it takes to set up a coop, since there’s so much admin work involved in organizing people, setting up the bylaws, and all that. If I was thinking about starting a coop, I would be intimidated by that upfront work—especially since I could be putting in a lot of time without any compensation. Maybe that's a capitalistic way of thinking about it, but it also feels like a question of survival, you know? A lot of people can’t afford to put in all that upfront work without getting compensated for it.
Yeah. I don't know if there's an answer for that problem, but I think with any new business or organization, there's probably going to be an asymmetry that will exist in terms of input and sweat and risk.
Starting a coop may seem irrational based on our cultural tendency to default to the option that makes the most money, or that seems the most logical. But I also see it from the perspective of, “How do you measure rational self-interest?” And I would argue that for me, putting in the work to set up Ampled as a coop feels like it's in my rational self-interest—I’m just measuring “self-interest” in a different way than how much money I make.
But, we also do have a time bank where we track the time that we've put into the coop, and ideally once the company is profitable, we’ll all get paid for the time we've put in—without anyone having outsized ownership or control.
Let me just add—and I know this may sound a little too cute—but it is really the friends you make along the way, too. I think that when you’re working with people who you get along well with, you end up working in ways that are fun and nice and happy, but also in ways that are productive and meaningful and inventive.
Non-coop businesses are often brutal because they divide people up. You might get inexplicably moved to a different team, your manager has all these hiring and firing abilities, and the power dynamics can create a lot of tension. So yeah, money is a factor in defining “success,” but it's not the only way to look at how a company can succeed over time.
Another part of the calculation behind setting up a coop is, “How likely is this business to succeed?” And to me, I would rather bet my money on a company that has 100 people working on it and believing in it, over a company with one person working on it and a hundred people who only believe in it as investors. It just seems obvious to me that the more people you have working on something and believing in it, the more likely it will be to succeed.
For people reading this article who are interested in pursuing a coop model for their own business or organization, where should they go? What should they read?
Just email me. [Laughs]
But really, there's no definitive guide or road map for starting a coop right now. That’s because every cooperative that exists has done things a little bit differently. So, in this spirit, the first step is mentally preparing yourself. Starting a coop is something that will take time, and that may have a long discovery process.
Otherwise, the best resources are real-world precedents for how groups of people have solved their own problems, and that might look different depending on the group or what they're trying to accomplish.
This is a little bit dry, but there are often regional economic development efforts that can help people looking to start coops. Search for a local coop developer, or local coop association—those two phrases will usually find you a group of folks whose job it is to help you get going.
There’s also the Platform Cooperativism Consortium. It's a meeting place where you can find interesting commentary around starting coops.
But yeah. Otherwise, just email us.